Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
Davy Rothbart’s life is anything but ordinary. This Ann Arbor native and creator of Found Magazine has an endless yearning for new experiences, exhibits a complete fearlessness of strangers, and falls in “love” with every pretty girl he meets, however briefly that meeting may be (if you have dark eyes, long hair, and work at a Subway—watch out!). My Heart Is an Idiot, Rothbart’s new collection of essays, chronicles the adventures he stumbles upon, or rather creates, in his travels across the U.S. Rothbart has the ability to make friends with anyone and everyone, and that talent, combined with a restlessness that compels him to constantly be on the move, makes for some very crazy encounters. Hitchhiking? There’s plenty of that. Traveling across the country for a girl he barely knows? Sure! Dead man in a pool? Yeah, he found one once. I can’t say that his writing is the best or that his constant pursuit of unrealistic romance didn’t get tiresome, but the weird situations and odd coincidences in these stories make My Heart Is an Idiot entertaining. His heart is definitely an idiot, but at least it’s a charming, adventurous one.
My Heart Is an Idiot
Culinary Visions® Panel says pickling and fermenting are going to be big in 2013. Get on board with The art of fermentation, the latest book from Sandor Ellix Katz, an expert in the fermentation field.
The art of fermentation
Books about Buddhism are very popular at the Kalamazoo Public Library, so I am always looking to buy new titles. Within the subject of Buddhism, author Thich Nhat Hanh is a perennial favorite, so I wanted to let you know that I just ordered his new book: Work: How to Find Joy and Meaning in Each Hour of the Day. Even though we have not received the book yet, you can still place a hold on it.
Other Thich Nhat Hanh titles I have ordered this year:
Good Citizens: Creating Enlightened Society
Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm
Have a Happy New Year!
Work: How to Find Joy and Meaning in Each Hour of the Day
Last month I wrote about a book that provided a tour of great buildings of the world. This month I'll call your attention to something a little closer to home, a book on buildings right here in Michigan. In the introduction, Kathryn Bishop Eckert discusses various aspects of Michigan architectural history. The arrangement of the individual building entries, with some black and white photographs, is by region of the state, and by county within each region. Some of the Kalamazoo buildings included are the Kalamazoo City Hall, First Presbyterian Church, Rose Street Market, and the Henderson Castle. An error in the 1992 edition, which had a photograph of the Ladies Library Association Building with a caption calling it the First Presbyterian Church, has been corrected this time around.
Buildings of Michigan
As I write this, it is 12/21/12 and I am currently not experiencing any sort of Mayan-prophesied apocalypse. Experts will tell you that the Mayans prophesied no such thing, but - as humans are wont to do - there were folks who built an urban legend out of scraps of misinformation and turned it into a whole big deal. And thanks to all that doomsday hoopla, civilization was cursed with one particularly crappy John Cusack movie. Now I don't personally know anyone who will confess to believing that the world was going to end today, but I do know a lot of people who believe many other things that I find difficult to swallow. From outlandish conspiracy theories to the existence of ghosts and little green men to ancient mythologies, I'm constantly surprised by what people are willing to accept without any substantiation.
Now don't get me wrong: I love stories of the supernatural and extraterrestrial - The X-Files is my all-time favorite television show. And like that program's protagonist, Fox Mulder, I want to believe. I'd give anything to have a ghostly experience or some psychic communication with loved ones from beyond the grave. But I have to admit to myself, that deep down, I'm much more like Mulder's partner Dana Scully, the skeptic, whose job it was to scrutinize all of Mulder's investigations and look for fact-based scientific evidence to explain their otherwise otherworldly encounters. I want to believe, but I don't - I can't, in good conscience, accept something outside the parameters of what we as humans have proven as fact.
I'm perfectly comfortable, however, that people believe things that I do not, but I have a hard time when people demonstrate the inability to process new information; acceptance of unproven things should not exclude acceptance of proven things. I also dislike when selfish people prey upon the personal beliefs of others, as with so-called "psychics" who use the practice of cold reading to take your money and tell you that your dearly departed loved one says that it's okay for you to move on. These kinds of behaviors make me very angry; I am a humanist and I believe that we should leave this world better than when we found it. And when I'm angry, I often seek answers that help me understand why things are the way they are. This summer I found solace in two books by fellow skeptic Michael Shermer: Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time and The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies - How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. In these books, Shermer discusses how the evolution of our brains helped us survive by becoming good at recognizing significant patterns in life - yet we're not particularly good at distinguishing between connections that actually exist and connections that have no significance. He also discusses how we tend to choose our beliefs and then actively select which bits of information we support them with, and which bits we actively ignore. These are fascinating reads and I suggest them to anyone whether you're a skeptic or not.
In the end, life is full of people who disagree with us, and we need to work hard to figure out a way to thrive among them. The world would be a boring place if we all believed the same things, but that doesn't mean we can't argue in constructive and productive ways, and it certainly doesn't mean that we shouldn't, like Mulder and Scully, always be in search of the Truth.
The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths
If you don't like the recent trend of science and religion yelling at each other, you might like this book. Jonathan Sacks argues, like many before him, that science and religion are compatible, "more than compatible," harmonious. Like two sides of the same coin and the right and left hemispheres of the brain, they need each other. He actually takes the brain analogy literally. Science is a left-brain activity; it analyzes things, pulls them apart, explains them. Religion is a right-brain activity; it joins things together, tells stories, focuses on relationships, and interprets things. They are simply two different ways of being, two different perspectives on the world. A thing is a thing and a person is a person.
He also makes a very interesting point about why we Westerners confuse science and religion. He blames it on the Greeks! The Jewish religion, he says, was not scientific or philosophical at all. Neither was early Christianity. But then Christianity was married with Greek philosophy and science. Saint Thomas Aquinas, for example, created a beautiful system of Christianity based on Aristotle's science and metaphysics and the Bible. Science and religion became one. Once we figured out Aristotle was wrong, it chipped away at religion too, etc. Get it? They became enemies because they were on the same turf.
What I liked most about the book is that the Rabbi Jonathan Sacks knows his science and religion and philosophy (of course he is definitely an Old Testament scholar), which is nice. Usually these books are written by a scientist pretending to be a theologian, or a theologian pretending to be scientific. The book starts strong and ends strong, but the middle gets repetitive and loses its' vigor. Not a bad read!
The Great Partnership
…the library has you covered. The world may end in nine days (and many of our survival skill books are checked out already), but if it doesn’t, you may want to check out The worst-case scenario survival handbook: holidays. According to the cover, it will show you how to prevail against hordes of shoppers OR reindeer. I think it also has tips for tough family situations.
The worst-case scenario survival handbook. Holidays
A few months ago, I happened to catch a show on PBS called “Half the Sky,” a series about the oppression of women in developing countries. The film followed a
number of women throughout the world who have devoted their lives to freeing women and young girls from sex trafficking, domestic violence, and inadequate healthcare (including access to better prenatal care and freedom from genital mutilation). The topics were heavy and the film footage often heartbreaking, but the work being done by these selfless, heroic women was inspiring.
Come to find out, the film was based on a book called Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalists Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Kristof and WuDunn wrote Half the Sky in an effort to address the oppression of women—a problem they saw reaching a crisis point but not being discussed at a global level. Not only does the book attempt to raise awareness of the issues that women and girls face worldwide, but it also acts as a call to arms to inspire and enact change. They believe that empowering women, while morally right, also serves to help the global economy and combat poverty, and they give plenty of examples of organizations working hard to fight for women’s rights. Don’t be frightened away by the weighty topic—this powerful and enlightening book will leave readers full of hope and optimism.
Half the sky
John Woolman--18th Century American Quaker, reformer, mystic, abolitionist, writer, wandering preacher--argued that excessive love contributed to the institution of slavery. Yes, that's right--excessive, gluttonous, kinship love. The argument is quite simple: parents who had slaves could save more money for their childrens' futures; they could give them more stuff, provide a secure life for them. John Woolman, of course, thought this was narrow-minded, immoral love; not a Christian love at all. It's loving one person at the expense and misery of another. And he wasn't arguing against the sort of slave-holder you think about. He was arguing against his fellow Quakers who had slaves! They were the guilty kind, the kind who wouldn't beat their slaves, who perhaps didn't like the institution alltogether; the kind who said "necessary evil" and "at least it's a way to convert them to Christianity". John Woolman loved his children too. But he loved them as he loved everyone else (I know that's hard to comprehend, but the biography portrays his life that way...he barely mentions his family in his own autobiography; he is a rare man indeed).
Woolman's life-long project to end slavery by literally walking around America talking to the slave-holders themselves, is only a fraction of his beautiful soul. Much like Martin Luther King Jr. thought that racism was part of a larger problem (hence, he devoted his life to anti-war, pro-union, anti-poverty projects too), Woolman's life was filled with nothing more than an obsession to purify his heart of sin, to figure out God's Will, to be humble, to wait for God to speak to him, to pray, to travel across the world. What amazed me so much was this man's obsession to be morally perfect in God's eyes, as he understood it along the way. The title of the book--The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman--is apt. For him the big things and the little things mattered. At one point he realized that an unbleached hat would last longer than a bleached hat. This was practically a moral crisis for him. For the rest of his life he wore completely unbleached (white) clothes (which made him look very weird). He had similarities with the saints that William James analyzes in Varieties of Religious Experience. But what makes his soul most beautiful is his character, how he chose to carry himself: humble, meek, mild, understanding, loving, patient, hopeful, steady, grateful. He showed love to the slave-holder; that's why he was successful in changing their minds.
This is not the best written biography by far, although it's good scholarship. It repeats a lot, and reads much like a long, extended commentary of Woolman's own Journal. But the subject matter is fascinating and worth it.
The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman
Have you ever read a romance novel? Romance is the highest selling segment of all published fiction. From Whitney, my love to the currently trending 50 Shades of Grey (73 holds on it as of this writing), one feature they all seem to share is poor communication between star-crossed lovers. If they had self-awareness and the ability to communicate honestly and openly, there would be a very different story, of course, but whenever I have picked up a bodice-busting paperback the most notable feature is an astounding lack of communication. This results in several hundred pages of uncertainty and misery. To help you avoid these pitfalls in your own life, take a look at some of our books on communication skills. The book I have featured here, Conversation Transformation, is one place to start.
[The Life is not a romance novel series started with Only connect, continued with Into the kitchen and Not so fast. Stay tuned for further installments, and please leave suggestions for future topics in the comments. Or comment on my reading choices.]
Conversation transformation : recognize and overcome the 6 most destructive communication patterns